US steps up China encirclement strategy

Relations between China and the United States have, with but minor interruptions, been steadily deteriorating since the beginning of this year, when Washington announced a $6.4 billion arms deal with the right wing regime on the renegade Chinese island province of Taiwan and China suspended all military-to-military ties with the US in response. (For further background on key events in Sino-US relations in the early part of this year, see ‘Growing contention between China and US imperialism, Lalkar, May/June 2010.)

In January the Chinese Defence Ministry announced the cessation of military exchanges between the two countries and the Foreign Ministry warned of possible sanctions against major US monopolies involved in the weapons sales to Taiwan.

The Washington Post (8 June 2010) reported that during the regular bilateral, High-Level Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held in Beijing this May, and attended by some 65 senior US officials, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei of the People’s Liberation Army accused Washington of “plotting to encircle China with strategic alliances” and said the arms deals with Taiwan “prove that the United States views China as an enemy”.

During the Ninth Asia Security Summit (Shangri-La Dialogue), held in Singapore in early June and organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), a sharp exchange took place between US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Major General Zhu Chenghu, Director of China’s National Defence University. Major General Zhu lambasted the US for its more than $12 billion in proposed arms sales to Taiwan in the past two years, pointing out that they were designed to prevent the reunification of China.

The preceding week China had publicly refused Gates’ request to visit Beijing after the Singapore conference.

In Singapore, Gates spoke of “our collective responsibility to protect the peace and reinforce stability in Asia”, in reference to the sinking of the south Korean naval vessel the Cheonan in late March.

Major General Zhu reacted by casting doubts on the US account of the ship’s sinking and went on to note that the US stance over the Cheonan was hypocritical given its failure to condemn the Israeli commando raid on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza on 31 May, which resulted in the death of nine Turkish activists, one of whom also held US citizenship. The senior Chinese military official pointedly noted that the US refused to condemn Israel, although the facts were clear, whereas Washington demanded that Beijing condemn north Korea when the facts were far from clear.

At the same event, General Ma Xiaotian, deputy head of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Staff Department, itemised obstacles to the resumption of US-China military relations, including not merely the arms sales to Taiwan, but also the “frequent espionage activities by US ships and aircraft in the waters and airspace of China’s exclusive economic zones”. (China Daily, 7 June 2010)

Matters went from bad to worse after Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jointly visited south Korea in late July, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US Pacific Command, and on 20 July, Gates, Mullen and Willard announced that the US would conduct a series of war games with south Korea in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan.

The first such exercise, the four-day Invincible Spirit naval manoeuvres, started on 25 July and were led by the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group, named after the 97,000-ton nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at its core. They involved 8,000 military personnel, 20 warships and 200 warplanes, including F-22 Raptor fifth generation stealth fighters, deployed to the region for the first time.

Shifted from the Yellow Sea, which borders the Chinese mainland, after very strenuous Chinese protests, to the Sea of Japan (on which Russia has a coastline) at the last moment, the drills nevertheless antagonised China and were overtly intended to produce that effect.

While in south Korea five days before the naval exercises began, Admiral Willard – head of the largest US overseas military command, the Pacific – announced that future war games of comparable scope would be held in the Yellow Sea, where China has an extensive coastline and claims a 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Joining a chorus of major US military and civilian officials making statements that could only be intended to provoke China, “Willard said he is not concerned about China’s feeling about US-south Korean naval exercises in that area”.

In his own words: “If I have a concern vis-à-vis China, it’s that China exert itself to influence Pyongyang to see that incidents like the Cheonan don’t occur in the future.” (United States Department of Defence, 20 July 2010)

His comment was apiece with a whole barrage of US official remarks both before and after.

During the G20 summit in Toronto on 20 June, US President Barack Obama held a “blunt” conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao and accused him of “wilful blindness” in relation to the Cheonan incident. (See ‘US moves to threaten China as Cheonan farce collapses at UN’, Proletarian, August/September 2010)

In mid-July, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell dismissed and belittled China’s concerns over not only large-scale but also ongoing US naval exercises on both sides of the Korean Peninsula. According to his hegemonist logic:

Those determinations are made by us, and us alone…. Where we exercise, when we exercise, with whom and how, using what assets and so forth, are determinations that are made by the United States Navy, by the Department of Defence, by the United States government” (Agence France-Presse, 14 July 2010). On August 6, Morrell confirmed that US warships would lead exercises in the Yellow Sea in the near future.

Shortly afterward, while preparing to leave for south Korea, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mullen, said:

The Yellow Sea specifically is an international body of water and the United States, you know, always reserves the right to operate in those international waters. That’s what those are. Certainly, you know, I hear what the Chinese are saying with respect to that, but in fact we’ve exercised in the Yellow Sea for a long time and I fully expect that we’ll do so in the future.” (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 19 July 2010)

On 21 July, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who had recently returned from visits to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Japan, all states neighbouring China, spoke at the Nixon Centre in Washington DC, and in addition to speaking of “our traditional alliances with Japan, south Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines,” stated:

I think the most important [problem with bilateral relations] is the continued unwillingness of China to deepen the mil-to-mil engagement between the United States and China.

At the same time, so that there is no mistake about our intentions, we made clear that we will exercise when and where we want to, when we need to, consistent with international law. And that, as I’ve said, we’ve clearly indicated in the past. We’ve exercised in the Yellow Sea. We will exercise in the Yellow Sea again.”

Making US intentions and motives crystal clear, he added, in the way most calculated to offend and concern China: “We do not consult with China on Taiwan arms sales. We make a judgement based on what we believe are the legitimate defensive needs of Taiwan for arms sales.” (United States Department of Defence, 27 July 2010)

While in south Korea in July for the first ever ‘two plus two’ meetings between the US Secretaries of State and Defence with their south Korean counterparts, “to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War,” (US Department of State, 21 July 2010), Hillary Clinton and Pentagon chief Robert Gates visited the Demilitarised Zone separating north and south Korea, still technically at war, to “show solidarity with their allies in Seoul”. (US Department of State, 23 July 2010)

The following day Clinton arrived in the capital of Vietnam for the 17th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) and a US-ASEAN ministerial meeting on 23 and 22 July respectively. While in Hanoi she brazenly tried to interfere in some problems left over from history among the Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines, and to incite them to confrontation and conflict, so that the US could find a pretext to sneak back into the region and fish in troubled waters.

On 23 July, in a blunt reference to China, she said that the US “has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” where sea and territorial disputes among the Asian neighbours are located, and that, “we oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant,” as “America’s future is intimately tied to that of the Asia-Pacific”. (US Department of State, 23 July 2010) Needless to say, no power has ever used the kind of overwhelming military force in the region as has US imperialism.

After seven months of unrelenting challenges to China, the nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier arrived in the Sea of Japan on 25 July.

Three years before, the US Defence Department released a report on China which claimed it was “pursuing long-term, comprehensive transformation of its military forces to enable it to project power and deny other countries the ability to threaten it” (Voice of America News, 26 May 2007). Of course, only in the twisted, perverted mind of US imperialism can denying other countries the ability to threaten you be considered a hanging offence!

However, proceeding from that perspective, Washington is seeking to ensure that China will be so thoroughly boxed in by US warships, submarines, interceptor missile systems and advanced deep penetrating stealth bombers – and if possible a ring of US military client states ready to host US ships, planes, troops, missile shield installations and bases – that it indeed will not be able to protect itself from the threat of attack.

In an article by a former commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Retired Admiral James Lyons, the Washington Times, a neo-conservative rag owned by the followers of the south Korean right wing cult leader, Sun Myung Moon, advocated that:

The United States should consider leasing big-ticket military hardware to the Philippines to give it the capability to defend its sovereign territory against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.…”

In particular, he said “the US should consider leasing a squadron of F-16 along with T-38 supersonic trainers, an aircraft for maritime patrol, and two FFG-7 guided-missile frigates to provide a recognised capability to enforce the Philippines’ offshore territorial claims.”

He also wrote that “now that President Barack Obama’s administration has directly challenged China, the US should expand its relations with ASEAN ‘by building on our Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines’.

The US should negotiate a commercial agreement for access to logistic support facilities in Subic Bay,” where the US maintained a naval base until the Philippine Senate ordered it closed in 1991 (Philippine Star, 10 August 2010).

Washington’s strategic goal of encircling People’s China is not confined to the South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula. For example, the US recently led the Khaan Quest military exercises in Mongolia on China’s northern border, along with troops from military partners Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, south Korea and Singapore.

On 16 August, US and British troops began ten days of military drills in Kazakhstan, on China’s north-west border, in the 2010 Steppe Eagle “multinational exercise, part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme….”

The exercise is intended to assist Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defence in its stated aim to generate a NATO inter-operable peace support operational capability”, according to British military attaché, Simon Fitzgibbon (Reuters, 13 August 2010).

To China’s south, a senior Indian Air Force official recently disclosed that his government is upgrading another air base near the Chinese border to accommodate warplanes. According to the US Defence News website:

The moves are part of the effort to strengthen India’s defences against China” (US Defence News, 12 August 2010).

Some years ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao reportedly stated in an internal speech that the United States was engaged in a strategic quest to encircle China, threatening it, and with the ultimate aim of stifling its socialist development.

US strategy and behaviour in the years since have fully confirmed the Chinese leader’s analysis – and this dangerous trend has only accelerated since President Obama entered the White House. Last month, it was reported that China had now surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. This will no doubt add grist to the US mill as it prepares for a possible military confrontation with China in the future.